The smell of mixing politics and journalism

Bob Wakeham
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I'm not particularly anxious on this Saturday to exploit Ryan Cleary as column fodder.

Cleary seems like a good enough fella (as far as I could determine during the few times our paths crossed), and was certainly a fine journalist, a career headlined by his mouse that (briefly) roared, The Independent.

And there are more important fish to fry than Cleary, a fact that obliges me to keep the skillet hot for those most deserving of a place over the fire.

But Cleary, the official NDP candidate for Mount Pearl-St. John's South in the next election, now has a month-long gig hosting VOCM's Backtalk, and those two conflicting positions place him once again on my rifle range of principle, practically begging for me to pull the sermon trigger.

I expressed public disappointment when Cleary crossed the bridge to the dark side a couple of years back, an opinion just ripe for criticism in some circles that I was moralizing from the Biblical Book of Journalism, St. Cronkite, Chapter Two, Verse One, on the unforgivable sin of switching trenches from journalism to politics.

Cleary's defenders, of course, might suggest that I'm out of touch with reality, that the ethical noose for journalists has loosened since I began re-writing press releases on the third floor of The Telegram newsroom on Duckworth Street (using an ancient, R.C. Allen typewriter with battered looks that made me believe several of its previous owners had tossed it from the fire escape to the roof below after once more opening their weekly paycheck of $95).

Even if it could be argued, though, that my knuckles are dragging on the cave floor of some dated newsroom, with caricatures of Joey and Moores and others still visible on the bathroom walls, there are valid questions to be asked about VOCM's latest appointment. (I wonder, speaking of the past, how Smallwood's crooked Latvian advisor, Alfred Valdmanis, might view a German company begging for bankruptcy protection in a place Doc Al once called home, his Vaterland, even as it was talking with Newfoundland officials about a takeover of the Grand Falls mill. "Zee numbnuts on zee New-Found-Hill are still zee zame gullible crowd zay verr in my day," he might offer).

That bit of made-up digression aside, I did find it bothersome (not a time to "stop the presses"), but disconcerting, nevertheless, that at least one journalist, the feisty Craig Westcott, seemed to be arguing last week that it's practically healthy to blur the lines between politicians and reporters. This is the same Westcott, it should be noted, who joined the right wing ranks of Harper and company in the last federal election (he was creamed, and did no favours for his reputation).

Now I have no problem with former politicians transforming themselves into pundits or making the rounds of political panels (as long as their past affiliation is identified). In fact, I've produced a few such panels myself (some worked well, others were unmitigated disasters), and even appeared on a few.

But that's a far cry from giving a candidate in the next election a free time political broadcast time as a summer replacement for Bill Rowe.

I realize the NDP in Newfoundland needs every advantage it can muster to form a federal or provincial caucus whose numbers require more than a tree house in Pippy Park in which to hold its meetings.

But making Cleary the Candidate a host of a talk show presents an ethical mine-field, and anyone contemplating a run for either of the other two parties in the next election, especially in his district, should demand equal time: four weeks at the helm of one of the radio station's call-in shows.

There's part of me that understands Cleary taking VOCM up on its offer; after all, what politician wouldn't jump at the opportunity to have a free microphone placed in front of his gob for a couple of hours each weekday for a month?

VOCM, of course, has already established a precedent by giving another politician, Mount Pearl Mayor Randy Simms, a regular talk show in the "dat you, Bas?" slot.

And a transcript of a love-in between Cleary and Rowe (published on the "Meeker on Media" blog) joyously announcing on air the NDP candidate's return to the airwaves had all the sappiness of one of those birth announcements in the paper, missing only Cleary's weight and a cute as a pie, cross-eyed snapshot.

I'm sure the entire episode will be viewed by many as much ado about nothing.

But it's a lot more significant than that in my books.

Thus ends the reading from Journalism 101.


Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by e-mail at

Organizations: NDP, The Telegram

Geographic location: Mount Pearl, Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John's South Duckworth Street Grand Falls Pippy Park

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Recent comments

  • Thomas
    July 20, 2010 - 13:03

    Mr Wakeham talks of politics and journalism and then goes on too slide in Hatper and his right wing gang,wish shows he is anything but objective himself.Just another left wing so called Journalist using his job to take shots at the guys he doesn't support,tell me again how you Mr. Wakeman are any different than Cleary.We're not all dummies out here.

  • greg
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    While I agree he's been given a glorious opportunity, (paid to promote himself)prior to the next Federal Election, he is not smart enough to take full advantage. He's turned the show into a dull,yawn-fest, jaw-dropping Bizarro version of the Fisheries Broadcast ,with Gus and Leo as Punch and Judy. The listeners should sue VOCM!

  • Polly
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    This article makes VOCM sound as though it has a high percentage of listeners . This type of radio station has its followers like any media outlet . I understand what you are saying about the politics , but I honestly believe that the handful of dedicated callers that Simms , Rowe and Cleary entertain lack the political savvy to sway the average citizen . I have listened to many open-line shows across this country and I have to admit that as talk shows go , VOCM produces some pretty hokey programs . We certainly are lacking in sophistication so I don't think we need worry about corrupting our political landscape by allowing Cleary airtime. Cleary the man is accessible (can that be said of Rowe) , he is amenable , and unusually polite . Cleary is no threat , but he is easy to listen to , which is a great compliment to this province .